The technology involved in genetic editing has made huge breakthroughs in the past few years. What began as an unrealistically difficult and ambitious endeavour in the increasingly complex world of medicine has now manifested into a reality through technology such as CRISPR. Genetic editing holds the power to not only treat but prevent countless diseases, transforming the world of medicine and possibly even diverging the path of human evolution itself.
The debate as to whether genetic editing is justified has been fiercely battled for years. The first genetically edited babies were born in China in November 2018. The scientist responsible for this, He Jiankui, was found guilty of “illegal medical practices”. He served three years in prison and was fined a huge 3 million yuan (£327,360). The Chinese court even insisted Jiankui “crossed the bottom line of ethics in scientific research and medical ethics.” Large numbers of people agree with this claim, arguing genetic editing can never be justified.
The main reasons supporting this argument include how genetic editing involves humans ‘playing God’. Religious believers often insist that only God should have the right to edit such a crucial element of our individuality, and humans should be happy with their genetic identity as it is ‘God’s gift’, even if this genetic identity involves a disease.
The misuse of genetic editing has been a cause of much concern. Its potential use to enhance characteristics such as physical strength, looks, or even intelligence would be unfair to ‘unedited humans’ and possibly biased to the wealthy- the poor will likely be unable to afford genetic editing. A ‘black market’ related to gene editing - much like ‘back alley ’abortions - may develop, where those who cannot afford gene editing will choose unauthorised and unregulated facilities with likely higher complication rates due to the lack of sanitation and doctors able to preform the procedure.
Furthermore, if everyone decides to genetically edit themselves there would be a reduction in genetic variation in the human species. Further concern is that eradicating genetic diseases would result in overpopulation, thus greatly contributing to the ever worsening issues of global warming and depletion of essential natural resources.
There is also a strong ethical issue associated with all types of gene editing – is it really correct for people to use the system to ‘customise’ their own children? Surely only the child should have the right to alter their appearance and should do it when they are old enough to understand the significance of this irreversible decision.
Genetic editing may gives rise to eugenics in dictatorship countries - where political or government groups forcefully try to modify the gene pool of some of their subjects. This may be to ensure mental and physical advantage in warfare or scientific careers.
In addition to ethical issues and the potential misuse of genome editing, there are concerns over safety and possible complications. Germline therapy (a type of genetic editing where DNA is transferred into the cells that produce reproductive cells) poses a potential infection risk through the use of viral vectors that enable DNA to be transferred into these cells. No one can truly predict how these resulting genes may interact during fertilisation and what genetic defects may arise.
On the other hand, one can argue that genetic editing can easily be justified. After all, a long time ago surgery would have been considered as a human taking the opportunity to ‘play God’. Surgery was previously extremely risky due poor hygiene, little access to powerful anaesthetic and sub-optimal techniques with high complication rates. However, surgery is currently much safer- millions of people undergo it and change their lives for the better. Many people predict this future for gene editing – there is nothing wrong with people wanting to rid themselves of a disease to empower themselves and become healthy again- we all have the right to be as healthy as possible. Nature can be very cruel to us- people cannot choose whether they end up with genetically inherited diseases such as haemophilia which completely destroy one’s life and damage their mental health as well as their physical health. If research in genetic editing continues we will have the power to live long and happy lives. Couples can be reassured that their unborn children can too since germline therapy ensures the disease will not be inherited in the family again.
If gene editing becomes widespread and advanced enough it will be the key to controlling human evolution – humans will eventually be much more intelligent creatures who are more mentally and physically resilient to the variety of challenges life brings in our day to day lives. In fact, instead of waiting hundreds of thousands of years for beneficial mutations to arise (as with natural selection), we could start to see beneficial changes every year. Many people regard gene therapy as unsafe, however, as with all new therapies, medicine, and vaccinations, genetic editing will be vigorously tested and researched before it is released to the public as a standard procedure, certifying its safety.
In conclusion, genetic editing could greatly benefit people, increase longevity, and change the scale of human happiness and productivity by multiple orders of magnitude. It could eliminate thousands of diseases and many forms of pain and anxiety arising from them. There are only a handful of areas of research in the world with this much potential. However, whilst it may be a wonderful addition to medical science, there needs to be firm monitoring to ensure genetic editing is as risk free as possible. Furthermore, it must be strictly controlled to avoid misuse. Genetic editing has risks- we must proceed with caution, but many new technologies have risks and we are eventually able to use them to greatly benefit people throughout the world. We should not let fear hold back progress on this extremely promising new area of research.
By Lana, 11N